James Browning's The Fracking King is an engaging story about a high school junior named Winston Crwth. "Win," as he's called, is at Pennsylvania's Hale Academy (his third school in as many years), and he's there on a "Dark Scholarship" (paid for by the fracking concern, Dark Oil & Gas). He's also a big Scrabble fan.
Browning populates his novel with quirky, memorable characters, and he does a fine job of combining Scrabble, boarding school, and fracking to create a story that's both entertaining and provocative. The Amazon Editors liked it so much, we picked it as a July Best Book of the Month.
Chris Schluep: First of all, are you a scrabble fanatic?
James Browning: Scrabble was the only game at which I could beat my step-father, a man who believed that children should be “seen and not heard.” I also played constantly with my mother, and my brother and I played about 300 games one summer when we were supposed to be painting our father’s house in Palo Alto, California.
CS: Can you tell me where the idea for the novel came from?
JB: The novel was mainly inspired by a meeting I had in Harrisburg in 2008, with a legislative aide who looked like Bartleby the Scrivener. He warned me not to use the “c-word” in Harrisburg—by which he meant “corruption”—which was a pretty amazing thing to say because the whole point of my job with Common Cause was fighting government corruption.
This meeting and the feeling I got while working in the state capitol—that I was stuck in some lost novel by George Orwell—gave me a real sense of urgency and feeling of responsibility as I began to look at the issue of fracking in Pennsylvania. Winston Crwth’s own journey to boarding school and then to Harrisburg is also the story of the power of a single word, “fracking,” in the hands of the right person.
CS: How long did it take you to write the book?
JB:About two years, but I’ve been writing fiction and hoping to publish a novel for a long time. I wrote a different Scrabble novel back in 1998 when I was in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins—a story of Scrabble and doomed love.
CS: Why did you choose to set it in a boarding school?
JB: Boarding school is the thing that woke me up politically—as much because I believed in non sibi, “not for self,” the motto of Phillips Academy Andover, but also because of a lingering sense of shame that I did nothing when several of the not-rich kids in my dorm were expelled for breaking school rules for the second or third time, when the rich kids seemed to get four, five, or more chances.
CS: Are you afraid that it will be seen as "just a Fracking novel"? Because it isn't.
JB: The Fracking King can be read as a fracking novel, or a Scrabble novel, or a novel about a kid trying to survive high school. Or as I told my oldest son, a budding icthyologist, the book is like a cuttlefish, which can change colors to look like sand, a rock, a snake.
CS: What's next for you?
JB: I’m writing a novel about reading for the blind, a sort of older sibling to The Fracking King.
I used to work as the night manager at a studio that recorded textbooks for blind and dyslexic students and it was my job to catch any mistakes before these tapes were sent to the master library. The readers were wonderful, very dedicated, and would describe things like the “honeycomb” shape of certain molecules in a way that a blind person could imagine running their hands along the inside of the molecule.
Many years later, I’m still remembering mistakes that got by me, that got by all of us, and which were then copied and sent to who knows how many listeners. The new novel imagines what would happen if some of those mistakes were sent into the world and accepted as reality—and how you would try to fix them.